Bengaluru: Monitoring the planet from the skies has become effortless and more commonplace than ever, with the increasing number of satellites orbiting Earth. Anyone sitting in any part of the world can access and decode the data—even a group of people inside an ordinary four-storey building hidden behind trees in Bengaluru.
Earth observation satellites provide a wealth of data on the health of the planet, enabling better long-term projections about agriculture, natural disasters, soil health, rise in sea level, fires, air pollution, urbanisation, and more. And these ever-expanding data points provide viable and practical solutions through satellite data intelligence, exemplified by companies like Bengaluru-based SatSure.
“We want to use space tech to solve local problems in India,” said SatSure co-founder Abhishek Raju, who is also the director of SatSure Labs.
SatSure is currently preparing to launch its own satellites to orbit in the next two years. The office walls are peppered with schematics for payload instruments and the spacecraft, as well as elaborate orbital path diagrams.
The big data company has a team of professionals with experience or degrees in data science, machine learning, astronomy, agriculture, climate science, meteorology, software development, rocket science, disaster management, banking, and engineering among others. Together, they work on projects that use satellite data to solve issues of their respective sector.
“We started our work at the intersection of agriculture, critical infrastructure, and climate change,” said co-founder and CEO Prateep Basu, a former engineer at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), whose office looks out into an everyday apartment view.
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Helping broken systems locally
Raju and Basu came together to work on something after they kept hearing about farmer suicides and failed insurance schemes that fetched farmers meagre settlements.
“Lending in the agricultural sector is completely broken, but it could be fixed with a little space tech, especially with remote sensing for replacing manual data collection work,” explained Raju. “And that will be a huge win for everyone — farmers will benefit because they will get fair payout for losses they suffer and insurance companies will benefit from a good product. And we realised we could be the business that will make it happen.”
Together with Basu, Raju wanted to improve the process with large-scale data that would probably not be available to banks. It would be a huge win for everyone.
“Farmers would get fair payout for losses and insurance companies will benefit from a good product. And we realised we could be the business that could make it happen,” said Raju.
SatSure provides big data solutions and decision-making intelligence to private organisations, NGOs, public authorities, and others for insights into various operations and results. For example, satellites monitor the health of farms, crops, land, and groundwater, and combine this data with publicly available government data about ownership to project yield, required future infrastructure, market variation, crop dependency on weather, and risks.
Working with insurance companies has also proven to be highly useful, simplifying a dozen manual and frustrating processes for both agencies and customers. Using remote sensing data, SatSure was able to facilitate over 4,00,000 quick claim settlements, especially among farmers. They could monitor crops and predict harvest windows more accurately. Therefore, collections operations from banks for loan repayments could be spread out and planned efficiently for both farmers and banks, explained Basu.
“We started with wanting to solve critical problems for farmers,” Raju said. “But they aren’t our direct clients. We work with financial institutions to create indirect impact to enable easier financial processes for farmers.”
Today, the company is a pioneer in creating more climate resilient financial products for agriculture sector design. From providing data to improve financial access to farmers to seed research, mechanisation and procurement, monitoring emissions from agriculture, and more.
SatSure also provides information and services about infrastructure, damage detection, disaster/drought monitoring, air quality tracking, surface and groundwater monitoring, climate hazard modelling and route optimisation for transmission lines.
SatSure has worked with governments both in India and abroad in the wake of natural disasters for rescue, relief, and rebuilding efforts. Over the years, it has been involved in assessing national catastrophes such as flash floods and mudslides, and — in the case of the Philippines— impact of volcanoes on agriculture and infrastructure.
During the 2018 Kerala floods, SatSure set up a collaborative “war room” with the state government for damage and impact assessment in real time, as well as aiding search and rescue planning.
For insurance companies, thousands of kilometres of roads across the country are monitored almost constantly for damage. Governance and construction are also monitored. Urban landscape is tracked, and in fact, any physical change visible from space is detected by the satellites that provide data to SatSure.
The company also works with the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to closely monitor obstacles to air traffic and unauthorised constructions in the vicinity. It is one of the handful of companies in the world to be able to monitor air traffic obstruction safety.
“We are probably going to be one of the few countries who will be compliant with ICAO standards of airspace management,” said Raju.
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Eyes in the skies
SatSure doesn’t collect data on its own. Instead, it uses available satellite data and public records for developing its algorithms intended to provide solutions for agricultural infrastructure and financial access.
Basu pulled up a sophisticated dashboard of sample data about farmlands. It currently uses data from open access public datasets published by agencies like NASA, European Space Agency (ESA) and private satellite operators.
Using publicly available data, reports of farmers show historic crop cycles, soil health, land management, yield of crops, effects of drought and rainfall, water damage risk, and more.
“With this data, yield can be predicted and risk calculated,” Basu said. This data is combined with financial data in models to provide solutions for technical appraisal of farm loans. The company has partnered with the credit bureau CIBIL to provide farm reports and credit scores.
“This used to be done for planning purposes by ministries with inputs from ISRO, but we are doing research for the industry segment, which then creates significant impact in the farming community,” he said. “With our data, it has become easier to improve the health of banks and also to increase the number of farmers obtaining loans and at lower interest rates.”
The goal is to reduce capital flows and business losses, and help infrastructure adapt better to the “inevitably changing climate.”
“There are primarily three commercial demands in the space domain — space transport, space assets, and space-based applications,” explained Sudheer Kumar, director of Capacity Building Program Office (CBPO) at ISRO. Kumar works with new space companies and facilitates their coordination with ISRO. “And within space assets like satellites, there is communication, navigation, and earth observation.”
SatSure, which utilises satellite data, deals with earth observation. Satellites that obtain images of Earth’s surface do not also work for navigation (like GPS) or communication (radio/TV). Instead, they take pictures of the earth’s surface at various resolutions, called multispectral imaging.
Kumar explained that in recent years and especially in the last few months or so, satellite data has detected sprawling urbanisation in areas authorities were not aware of before. Similarly, satellite data has tremendously helped supply chain management with crops and perishables, he said, enabling processes to be timed accurately.
“There are many new companies in this space, but SatSure stands out,” he said. “Their models are highly successful and accurate. They are growing big. They’ve acquired foreign businesses and are now planning to launch their own satellites too.”
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Inception to execution
Raju and Basu started having casual conversations about starting a company back in 2015-2016. Both of them had prior experience in private space companies. After brainstorming with some of their peers, the two invested money and incorporated their first company in the United Kingdom in 2016 as there was initially no clarity on regulations around using satellite data in India. Later, they moved the offices to Andhra Pradesh.
Co-founder and CTO Sukhmani also joined in as SatSure was legally established in 2017.
They started participating in various agricultural challenges across the country and won one that was organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in association with the government of Andhra Pradesh in 2017. The latter went on to become SatSure’s first significant paying customer, after which multiple government agencies followed.
One of its largest projects was with the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecasting Center. The agency, which comes under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, performs yield estimation for various crops every year. The activity is a massive undertaking with over 10 million crop cutting experiments (sample size for a crop) that have to be physically conducted twice each year, during the two harvest seasons.
SatSure, along with the agency, jointly created a model to perform smart sampling using remote sensing data and statistics, which could calculate a more accurate yield estimation for crops, said Raju. Archival data from NASA and ESA also provide historic performance data, which further enhances models. The team does want to work with their own data though at some point.
Last year, the founders created a subsidiary, KaleidEO, with the aim of launching a fleet of satellites, called SatSure Argus.
The KaleidEO team consists of ex-ISRO engineers who are working on the design and instrumentation for it currently. Four satellites are targeted to be launched in 2024-25 into calibrated very low Earth orbits (LEO), which would facilitate at least three revisits by the high-resolution multispectral imaging satellites over any point globally, every week.
Enabling this growth is a team of young employees, several of whom joined SatSure immediately after graduation.
“The work environment is extremely collaborative, and that helps with any high pressure too. This has helped us also get four patents to our name,” said Sanjutha Indrajit, a data scientist.
One such patent that she was involved in for two years was awarded to a model that could enhance the accuracy of translating microwave satellite data — the only kind that could peer through cloud cover, into optical and multi-spectral satellite data.
“The need came from internal processes being streamlined and keeping the cost of crop monitoring low, but the product will now be used by many other companies for filling data gaps,” said Indrajit.
SatSure, with its steady growth in projects in various sectors, attracts a steady stream of subject matter experts. Indrajit said that every day, she gets to interact with people from the fields of remote sensing, software engineering, data science, agriculture, infrastructure, telecommunications, carbon and climate scientists, aerospace engineers, and more.
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The company grew from 15 people in 2019 to 130 employees presently and is still expanding. Until December 2021, SatSure had been bootstrapped, after which they managed to raise $5 million in a pre-Series A round from Baring Private Equity India Partners and Asian Development Bank Ventures.
Late last year, they also had three leading banks join as investors – ICICI Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, and HDFC Ltd.
“When we initially approached ministries, bureaucrats, banks, insurers, farmer organisations, and the like, most people weren’t aware of how satellite data worked and we faced resistance,” said Raju. “But after a few pilot projects, people started to see the value.”
Rabo Foundation of the Dutch financial services company Rabobank, which has a working mandate of enabling smallholder (farmers owning their farm) farmer finance, was one of the entities that supported SatSure in its early days.
“We were interested in using data for access to finance to smallholder farmers as they don’t have real digital footprints and struggle to avail loans from banks,” said Bram Spann, program manager of Asia at Rabobank. It provided SatSure with two rounds of funding.
“During the pandemic, our exposure became really, really big,” said a thrilled Raju. “It was useful for many people to obtain data without having to physically go on the ground.”
It’s a view Spann concurs with as well. “With the data they have and the metrics that come with it, banks feel more comfortable lending out to a segment that is normally underbanked and underserved,” said Spann. “In that sense, we’re really proud of what SatSure has been doing because they are a pioneer who is making sure data can work in the favour of farmers.”
Today, SatSure also has a global office in Switzerland that works on international projects, along with their offices in the UK and US, and headquarters in Bengaluru.
The team is now growing rapidly and is expected to take on a much larger portfolio of work, said both the founders.
“Our most mature solution is the agri-finance sector,” said Raju. “We are pretty advanced in infrastructure solutions. The aviation solution is already implemented in many airports across the country.”
Now, SatSure is building their carbon and climate verticals.
“We want to go from being an insight provider to a complete risk management solution.”
(Edited by Ratan Priya)